Posts tagged ‘media’

Yesterday, Guangzhou blogger Beifeng went hiking with a number of friends in Baiyun mountain. Some of them were wearing a t-shirt that carry a slogan from Xinhua Daily in1946 that says: one-party rule will bring disaster everywhere (一黨獨裁,遍地是災). It is a communist party slogan against the former ruling party Kuomingtang. The group of people were interrogated by six police and brought to the police station for further investigation. The tea-time lasted for more than eight hours and Beifeng reports on the process via twitter. Here is a translation of his tweets:


Some people with the t-shirts that carry the slogan of past “Xinhua Daily” are interogated by six police. They are on their way to climb Baiyun mountain.

In The Smooth and the Striated, Delueze and Guattari talk of the constant shift from striated space to smooth space and back. Neither space can exist on its own, and one continually sets the stage for the other to spring up from within it. A rational, gridded city as an example of the striated, will always have in it the smooth space of organic neighbourhood growth, community groups and homeless drifters. The internet first serving as a point-A-to-B information exchange route (point-to-point movement being a characteristic of striated space as opposed to smooth space where points do not terminate a path), became a space for people to become producers, creating and sharing new information, activities and ideologies—Benjamin’s description of the ideal production apparatus in the hands of the proletariat. However, as prescribed of organic and planned forces intermingling, the smooth space of the internet has bred a new striated space of ’social networking tools’, tools which threaten the act of production.

With “social networking tools”, such as facebook, we have stopped communicating directly with each other and instead ‘update’ our ’status’ via ‘wall posts’. We do not personally invite our friends with a phone call or email, but create an ‘event’ in the confines of the ’social networking tool’ which our network of real-life friends may not learn of if they are not a part of that insular network. We don’t express grief or even news of losing a grandparent other than by creating a status update that you are ‘going to a funeral’. The empathic connections between members of a society are cut, and without the feelings of kinship, care, respect, etc. the human connections in a society are severed and social responsibilities to each other are lost.


When one thinks of the codified world, as Vilem Flusser describes, one starts to think of their cultural heritage as a set of codes. For me, I have come to define ‘culture’ as the methods of survival for a given civilization over time (this probably warrants a whole other article in itself.) Culture is something that grows out of the necessity to survive, and over time, develops into ritualistic practices, and then their intentions are sometimes forgotten because they are so old. As such, because each civilization has lived differently and undergone different circumstances, they have sought different ways to overcome difficulties, and of course the ones that succeeded survive. Now, Flusser will argue that culture shouldn’t be explained, but should be interpreted, because it is a humanity. For him, culture is something that is fabricated by people to give meaning to their meaningless lives in the face of death, a very existential approach, but for the purpose of this article, I am concerned only with the aspect of culture as a form of code, not its purpose.

What’s interesting about different cultures has always been about how different their codes are; even within China, the different provinces each have their own cultural practices. They might all speak mandarin, the common language, but until you have lived in a place and learned the local tongue, you might still not understand some of the terms and phrases that they use. Such symbols are not a matter of language, but a common understanding that is brewed over time within a certain frame. By frame, I mean both physical, such as geography, and metaphysical borders, such as time. People only start to accept you as one of them when you have acquired an understanding of their local culture, and if you have truly mastered it, might even confuse you to be one of them.

The tricky issue comes when a person has more than one set of codes imbued in him, although in today’s world, we already have many of such people around. I once watched a documentary where a Japan-born Korean found difficulty in being accepted into Japanese society. What’s weird is if she doesn’t tell you she is ‘Korean’, one will never know she belongs to Korean heritage because she speaks perfect Japanese and understands the culture fully. The only difference is that she has a memory which had been ingrained into her from young that she has a connection to the Korean civilization. One might argue that being ‘Korean’ is more biological than cultural, but I beg to differ. One must consider the factor of time and, once again, the notion of the frame (this will go in another article). But even if one simply looks at cultural identity, for example being Korean, as having both biological and social codes, then maybe it is not so complicated. For how a civilization behaves in social terms affects how it biologically breeds, and how it biologically breeds also affects how it socially plays out, and culture is brewed in this continuous spiral. Culture is born out of a spiral between social practice and biological function over time. For example, a people living in a cold climate might cook spicy food to fight the cold, and over time, develop a biological appetite for spicy food. But because they have grown to like spicy food over time, they start developing new recipes to satisfy this crave. And hence you have an array of spicy food in say, Korean cuisine, which only further propels the spicy appetite of next generations. Over time, people might forget how it all started, and why they had come to develop so many different variations of spicy food and have such a liking for them, but by then a ‘cultural’ code would have occurred, and if you’re Korean, you eat Korean food.

As such, this model could also be brought to explain moralistic practices within a civilization. Let’s take one of Confucius’ teaching as an example, which is to respect and take care of the elderly. Now, I’m not claiming that this necessary came out of a survival problem, but let’s say it did, and that somehow the Chinese people realized their numbers did better when they took care of their old. This practice becomes accepted and understood by everyone within the community that it starts becoming a moral, where if a person who doesn’t do it is as good as endangering the whole community. Over many centuries, this group of people gets used to this practice, it gets passed down from generation to generation, and the thinking gets imbued in their blood, such that a Chinese person will naturally be in agreement with such a practice. Social practice has been converted into a biological function over time, and conversely, biological functions continue to pass down and promote such social practices. History is embedded in our blood, and one can see it as a form of code that is a part of the cultural equation. Which is why Chinese medicine believes that the body is a product of the mind, and they even believe that some illnesses are linked to a spiritual or psychological dysfunction i.e. worry. Mind is body, and body is mind. If a person’s mind is in constant worry, his heart pumps faster everyday, and over time, he is affected physically. Every intangible thought or feeling has a certain effect on a person’s physical body. There is some physiological connection between mind and body, just like how Confucius’ teachings can be codified in every Chinese person’s blood, and the Chinese believe in it. Which perhaps starts to explain Chinese people’s use of the word ‘blood’ as not just a mere biological fluid, but rather a collection of beliefs,feelings, ideology and history. Centuries of war and suffering is codified in Chinese blood. Blood plays a huge significance in Chinese culture, and if someone wrote a letter in blood, then it must be of utmost importance.

Our codified blood, blood that contains many layers of complex information, is also affected by things such as weather and environment. Again, in Chinese medicine (and i learned this via a conversation with my landlady), they believe that everyone is biologically different depending on where they come from. Because their cultural practices are different, their blood is also different. The people who live near the sea have a certain type of liver, because they have constantly been eating seafood for many centuries, and so they cannot be treated in the same way as people from other places. Word has it that the ‘bagua’ (八卦) has clearly categorized all the different types of Chinese people according to their areas, and how it affects them biologically and culturally depending on climate, diet and conditions. It’s interesting when one starts to equate biological processes to cultural practices, and vice versa, and then blood having a memory to store all these information. Of course, blood content changes all the time, especially in today’s world, where cultures are mixing all the time, and people are migrating so often. People from hot climates are migrating to colder climates and planting new roots there, hence changing the content of their blood (and also culture), while people interbreeding from different climates is also more rampant due to technological advancements in transportation.

When all these codes change, how will we start to define them?

It is easier to define a cultural code when it is consistent across a big number of people, and this consistency trickles down to signs such as language, diet, skin, facial features and religion such that we can call them a civilization/race/nation. But when everything starts getting jumbled up, and there is not enough consistency to identify a trend, will people start to lose their cultural identities? Or will they start to develop new ones based on other factors such as one’s association with the workplace?  Before it had always been geographical borders that defined how these codes developed, but one can find different codes of conduct in the same place now, even within the same building, and people in different places might even have more in common than those around them due to the emergence of new ‘frames’ and conditions.

Or perhaps all these culture (and blood) will get diluted someday to form one ultimate unified code across the globe?

While foreign media companies continue to struggle in China, the last ten years have seen the development of a few independently operated Chinese media companies that are starting to produce profitable, high quality products that do not rely on content licensed from foreign publications.

Modern Media Group is one of these.

The founder and CEO of Modern Media, Thomas Shao (邵忠) is a fascinating character: a home grown media tycoon in the making. All of his magazines are in original, slightly quirky formats, and while there are plenty of foreign influences, none of them are modeled on a foreign title. A little like the man himself: dressed in understated designer clothes, he is elegant and cosmopolitan-looking, but he has never lived outside China.

Below is a Danwei TV episode, featuring an interview with Shao. You can also watch the video in a larger format at the Youtube website or on Revver.com

Shao is from Guangzhou. His parents were both government cadres. His mother worked at the Guangzhou Daily. As a youngster, he used to visit the printing presses with his mother, and he attributes some of his interest in media to his early experiences.

In 1983, Shao joined the Guangzhou City Government Planned Economy Committee. In 1988 at the young age of 27, he became a department head of the Village and Town Enterprise Administration.

In 1993, he left the gold rice bowl of his government job and went into business. That year he started the company that is now called Modern Media Group (现代传播), launching Modern Pictorial magazine (现代画报), a glossy lifestyle magazine that was the only serious local competitor to Elle China, launched in 1988 and Trends (now (Cosmopolitan China).

He was involved in other businesses at the same time, but his passion for media eventually convinced him to drop everything else and focus on magazines. In 1997, he launched Modern Weekly (周末画报), a weekly news magazine with information about business, current affairs, fashion, culture and entertainment. It made an immediate impact on the drab newsstands in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing with its bright colors, and eye catching design.

There was a certain genius in the format that Shao likes to call ‘paperzine’: it is the size of a tabloid newspaper but printed on glossy paper. The combination of glossy paper with a low price (5 yuan compared to 15 yuan and up for most fashion magazines) helped make it one of the best known magazines in avery short space of time. Modern Weekly now prints nearly half a million of each issue and is an established market leader in the Chinese print media, attracting advertisements for luxury and fashion brands, mobile phones and high-end consumer products.

Another strategy that Modern Weekly pioneered in China was targeted free distribution: the company installed small racks in upscale shops and restaurants all over their target markets. These racks ensured that the emerging middle class — people who work in high-end office buildings and dine in smart restaurants — very quickly had a high awareness of the magazine, and read it even if they did not buy or subscribe.

Since 2000, when Modern Weekly started to leave serious amounts of black ink on the company’s spread sheets, Shao has been putting his energy into new ventures.

In 2002, he launched The Outlook Magazine (新视线), a monthly glossy about design, designers and the creative industries.

The next year, Modern Media Group also recently acquired Hong Kong’s City Magazine (号外), which has been one the territory’s leading magazines since the 1970s. This was perhaps the first time a PRC media company had bought a magazine outside the Mainland, although it is certainly not going to be the last time.

In December 2005, Shao launched China City (生活) magazine. It’s a large format glossy that costs 50 yuan. It looks similar to the Hong Kong City, but the content is completely different. The articles are essays, profiles and features about a variety of subjects from architecture to travel. The magazine even has music and art directors who contribute to each issue: Tan Dun the Chinese composer who won an Oscar for his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon score, and McArthur Genius Award winner, New York-based artist Xu Bing.

In the future, Shao hopes to continue expanding his print media business, but also has plans for the Internet. He defines his products as “non-mainstream mainstream media”, which means that all of his magazines are aimed at niche markets: he is not interested in making mass media. He will pursue the same direction online: looking for small groups of readers and users with similar interests and incomes, rather than pursuing the bigger mainstream groups that newspapers and celebrity magazines go after.

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